Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Tree

Dear Ellie,

Christmas has always been a special time of year for your mother and I, but this Christmas, it was doubly so.  Yes, I know it sounds cliche, but for years and years, Christmas after Christmas, all we wanted was you.  We opted out of the expensive trappings of the season for most of our adult lives.  It seemed silly to buy gifts--- to be opening presents--- when the only thing we ever wanted to see tumbling out of a neatly packaged box was a giggly little girl.  Every dollar spent was a dollar taken away from the Eleanor Smith IVF fund.  However, despite our frugality, there was one thing we did always buy ourselves each Christmas: a Christmas tree.

Every year your mother and I would wait for a cold day, head out to Tree Town, then walk together through the rows of spruces and pines and furs, leaving a little space in our hands where yours should be, and a space between us where one day you might be bouncing along.  Each year, your mother would judge all the trees quite stringently, examining every one top to bottom for asymmetries and imperfections as though judging pigs at the county fair.  I, on the other hand, would lament that we couldn't take the defective trees instead because it was doubtful they would ever find a "loving home."  I shuddered at the idea that they would instead be tossed into the woods in a massive brown heap once Christmas had passed.

Invariably, we would both cynically joke about how all of our affection for Christmas trees were predicated on Christmas-tree-genocide, and then we'd egg on excited children who darted in and out of towering furs while their angry parents patrolled the rows of trees in search of their sap covered sons and daughters.  Eventually we'd find the perfect tree, and deciding that we should spare no expense, we'd call over to one of Tree Town's grumpy, Christmas Tree "Elves" to fetch it for us.    

Once it was home, we'd excessively decorate our perfect tree until the limbs buckled beneath the weight.  I always knew that your mother was satisfied with the job if she declared, with childlike glee: "It looks like Christmas puked all over it!"  Meanwhile, the cats would stare on, wide eyed, at the sparkling mass.

At that, we'd turn off the lights, stare at it in admiration, and then cry quietly together because we weren't sure whether you would ever be there to share with us a Christmas.  Our little Christmas tree ritual was always a painful one, but to abandon that ritual, I think, would have felt like surrendering the fight to bring you into our lives.  Whenever we had our tree, though, it seemed destined that you'd be there one day to gaze up at it with us.

How quickly that day has crept up.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Winter Solstice

Dear Ellie,

I want to talk to you about the Winter Solstice.  But before we get to that, I want you to imagine that you were a person that lived before the written word.  Before numbers before cities and before bronze.  There are no books.  Not even letters, and so there are no vast libraries of human knowledge.  There aren't many distractions in this time, either.  No computers and smartphones and books, so you spend a lot of time looking up at the sky.  And when you look at the sun and the moon and the stars, you can only wonder what they are.  The sun, perhaps, is a ball you could touch were you to climb a mountain tall enough.  Perhaps you could hold your raw food on a long stick and cook it upon a solar flare as the sun passes by.  The moon, perhaps, is a stone you might dislodge were your arm strong enough to strike it with a rock.  Clever child that you are, perhaps you might then roll the moon about on a hard surface to crush hard grains.  The stars, perhaps, could be swat from the sky if you were to climb to the tallest branch of the tallest tree and brush them with a palm frond.  Once upon the ground, you might collect them together and tie them into a twinkling necklace.

You know the Universe, at least, is a fairly big place.  It might even take a few weeks to walk across: a thing you might prove if every moment of your day weren't spent surviving the perils of a paleolithic world.

You are wise and observant, so you know that this Universe you live in conforms to certain rules.  Things that come up must come down.  Dark clouds come before rain.  The earth beneath your feet is solid, and unshifting.  The sun and the moon rise every day, and set every day.  Yet despite these comforting consistencies, sometimes forces tear through the the web of rules that define your world.  Sometimes the ground shakes violently beneath your feet.  Sometimes a finger of clouds comes down from the sky and feasts on the soil.  Sometimes the sun or moon vanish without warning.  What does this tell you in the end?  It tells you that, regardless all of your observations about the world's rules, nothing is for certain.

And so every year after summer as you watch the sun rise each morning, you notice that it is a little bit further down in the south than the day before.  You notice that each day grows shorter and shorter, and with it, the world grows colder.  Each day, there is less time to find food.  You begin to worry.  Even though you remind yourself that the sun eventually reversed its course in prior years and trekked back toward the center of the sky, you wonder--- just as the earth sometimes shakes and the moon is swallowed by darkness in a lunar eclipse--- whether this time there will be an exception to the rule.  Whether this time, the sun will continue to fall toward the south.  The more you think about it, the more logical it seems.  Shouldn't the sun continue to fall, just as a rock thrown skyward returns to the ground?  Maybe the sun is more fickle than you thought.  Maybe, this time, the sun will go off to find a new world and disappear behind the southern horizon, leaving the Earth in darkness and cold forever.        

This wouldn't at all be an unreasonable thing to worry about.  After all, while you are wise, your understanding of the Universe is like a tiny spec of light in a sea of fog, and the primal forces that move existence all churn about amid that fog, beyond your vision.

So how marvelous it must be--- what a tremendous relief--- when the Winter Solstice arrives.  When the sun decides, for at least one more time, to reverse its course and climb the mount of blue.  Perhaps you might even exalt and praise the invisible forces that be for having given your world another year of warmth.  I can't help but to think, for all the eons that our hunter gatherer ancestors watched the Winter Solstice come and go, that this time of year has imprinted a sort of mysticism upon the human psyche.  That our minds are disposed, just like the land, to melt from a frigid white to a verdant green.

Maybe this is the reason why the Winter Solstice is a magical time for me.  It seems to put me in touch with some deep, primal part of the human psyche.  So many religions, from modern to extinct, have built their most important holidays on the elemental scaffolding of the Solstice.  Should we be surprised that, in Christianity, the birth of Christ--- who will bring peace and warmth to the world after ages of darkness--- is so analogous to the winter having reached its harshest night, and that only greater light and warmth lie ahead of us?  In a way, to be in touch with the Winter Solstice is to be in touch with some important common ancestor of the world's great religions.

But beyond this fundamental mysticism, the Winter Solstice reminds me of the limitations of my own knowledge.  It reminds me of the fog that swirls just beyond the faint aura of our knowledge, and that great mysteries still abound.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Things Not Yet Behind You

 Kissing Oliver.

Snoozing with Grandma

Dear Ellie,

Despite the happy photographs up above, I wish I could say that all of your preemie issues are behind you.  As time goes on, we're reminded that there are some things you probably aren't going to outgrow.  The pain of eating is the most prominent of those reminders.  You are over 7 months adjusted now and eating is just as arduous and tedious as ever.  It wasn't as difficult--- when you were 7 or 8 pounds--- to lug you around in a sling for an hour each feeding.  But now you are over twice that size, your legs bulging out the sides of the carrier.  Now that your arms are long enough to claw at my jugular, getting that bottle to your lips involves additional feats of parental dexterity.  Each feeding, I'm constantly searching for that balance between insisting that you eat (to make sure you can keep up your growth and weight) and letting you off the hook (to make sure you don't hate eating even more).  When I insist by holding your head in a vice between my hand and chest, I'm stricken with guilt when you whine and cry and push against my chest.  When I let you off the hook, I imagine you tiny and emaciated.  There is no satisfying outcome.  For some time, we were holding out for the possibility that you'd like eating solids, but you haven't shown any more enthusiasm for them than you did 3 months ago.

Over the weekend, we met a 24 week preemie at your cousin's 1st birthday party.  He had feeding issues that only worsened as he grew older, and it left its mark.  He's now 3 years old, an adorable little boy, but he's as wispy as a feather.  I felt like if the wind blew too hard it would blow him away.  The force behind his arms and legs were so feeble: like that of a puppy.  Seeing him really plied an image to the thing I'd been fearing all along.

I always try to put things into perspective though.  In reality, you aren't like that little boy.  Not even close.  Your weight is still holding firm, you've grown quite nicely, and you have a surprising strength behind those limbs.  Because of this, the frustrating moments we do endure fizzle quickly when we watch you achieve some new physical feat.  Like what happened today.

Typically, we get one really big feed around noontime, but today, you resisted it with all of your might.  I grew frustrated at the thought that you'd lose your biggest feed of the day, and against my better judgement, pushed you too hard.  Most of the time, if I can just get the bottle into your mouth, you'll settle down after a few seconds.  Not this time.  You broke into a fountain of tears and choking cries, as though someone had stabbed you with a needle.  That was the straw that broke the back of my patience, and all I could do was set you down on your stomach in the crib and turn away to collect my wits.  When I returned just moments later, I was shocked to see that you were sitting perfectly erect.  Before then, we'd been waiting and waiting for the moment you'd sit up (with no signs of progress), and all of the sudden, there you were, sitting tall, perhaps so that I could see your pouty little face.  With that, my frustration evaporated, we tried feeding again, and 15 minutes later you had 7 ounces of milk in your belly.

We enjoyed a nice few worry free hours, then when your dinner time came, you went back to fussy and I went back to worry.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Holiday Gauntlet

Dear Ellie,

A few weeks ago, you had your first Thanksgiving.  At first, you weren't happy.  I suspect it seemed like any other day, but with a lot more noise and a lot of extra unfamiliar faces.  At least a dozen unfamiliar faces... yep, we had 24 people over for Thanksgiving.  In case you were wondering, this is what the eating accommodations for 24 people looks like:

And then, those tables occupied:

The plan was for you to make a splash with the remaining relatives who hadn't met you, but it didn't go so smoothly.  Instead of giggling for aunts and uncles, you cried and cried and cried upstairs in the nursery until you fell asleep from exhaustion.  I cried and cried also.  You cried because of all the confusion, I'm sure.  I cried because someone had to stay with you during all of your hysterics and I was certain that there would be no more turkey upon my arrival back downstairs.  After the nap, our dispositions both improved and we both forgot what we'd been so upset about.  There was yummy mashed sweet potato for you and plenty of turkey remaining for me and I promptly fulfilled my personal goal of always eating just a little bit more turkey each year than I had the previous.  With our bellies full,  you set off on your charm offensive.


I thought that hosting so many people for Thanksgiving would be hectic, but it wasn't so much.  Aside from tackling a mountain of dishes with Aunt Dani (the dishwasher broke that morning), I thoroughly enjoyed myself along with everyone else, babies included.  Maybe it was the turkey coma, or maybe it was the fire in the fireplace, but it turned out to be just the kind of quiet enjoyment of each other's company that I always hoped our holidays would be.

But the "holiday season" isn't over yet.  Especially not for you.  First it was Halloween, then it was Thanksgiving, and pretty soon it will be Christmas.  A month after that, it'll be your birthday, too. Some people would get worn out by that kind of extended, lengthy holiday gauntlet, but if you are anything like your mother (and me!), it'll be your favorite time of year.  We just got our Christmas tree the other day and you are already enamored by it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Laundry Accident

Dear Ellie,

I'm afraid there has been a mix-up with the laundry.  It was completely my fault.  As usual, I was trying to do too many things at the same time.  In an attempt to get all the chores done and keep on top of work, I thought I'd change your diaper while also doing the laundry and texting with customers in preparation for work the next day.  In retrospect, it was a recipe for some kind of mistake.  I propped you up, diaper undone, on the dryer which is directly next to the laundry machine.  I don't know what exactly happened, but your little pale body must have rolled right on in with my colored shirts and pants when I wasn't looking.  You didn't even cry because all of that soft laundry was probably nice and comfortable.  So I shut the laundry machine door, started it up, and only then did I realize you were missing.  It didn't take me long to notice, but the damage was already done.  By the time I opened the door and fetched you out... this had happened.

Now I understand why your mother always reminded me to remove the lint from the lint filter.  And why she always told me never to wash colors with whites.  I hope someday you'll find it in your heart to forgive your careless, distractable father.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Laser Beams

Dear Ellie,

Yesterday we took a beleaguering trip down to the exotic, foreign country of Miami and braved suicidal motorists so that we could shoot your face with laser beams.  Okay... so maybe this adventure requires some explanation.

Back when you were in the NICU, the endo-tracheal tube and CPAPs that were helping you to breath were often attached to your face with tape.

Because preemie skin is so sensitive, that tape caused considerable irritation.  When the tape was removed, it appeared as though you had a cluster of little white pimples on the right side of your face near your mouth.  We were assured that they would go away soon, to our skepticism, and indeed they didn't go away.  It even got worse, scarring a bit, and left a nice a red spot in the shape of an eyebrow on your cheek.  It's not a big deal when you get down to it.  When all was said and done, we had expected you to have numerous scars after the ordeal of your first 4 months.  When you were first born, I would have gladly traded 10 such cosmetic scars for the health outcome you've achieved today, yet the only other real scar you have is on your forearm, from your first blood transfusion.  I suppose we should be grateful.  Still, your mother and I thought it would be hard for a little girl to grow up with a big scar on her face, so we took you to a special dermatologist in the great Latin American country of Miami.  The practice specialized in cosmetic surgery involving lasers, and while I insisted to your mother that I could probably generate similar results with my trusty laser pointer without having to spend a lot of money, she assured me that these were entirely different kinds of lasers.

Indeed, when we took you in for the procedure, the process only took a literal 3 seconds.  There were 3 or 4 fast, cartoony sounding "zaps" accompanied by intense flashes of light, followed by lots and lots of belly aching from our Ellie Belly.  It's my impression that the lasers destroy damaged tissue so that new tissue can regrow in its place, and since you are still youthful and stretchy, we're told that the scar should barely be noticeable by the end of treatment.  For now, that dull red spot has become a bright red spot for the next few days!

You still have the scar on your arm, and in a weird sort of way, I'm glad its still there.  I'd like you to always understand how fortunate you are to be alive, and that scar will always be a good reminder.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Proud Day

Dear Ellie,

This past week was quite interesting.  You went through your 6 month growth spurt.  All of that reluctance when it came to eating evaporated and you sucked down as much milk as your stomach could hold.  By the end of the growth spurt, it seemed like something clicked inside of your head.  Like you took a leap to a new stage of awareness.  I noticed it when we were taking a stroll around the neighborhood.  Previously, whenever I took you outside in the stroller, you'd just sit back and gaze out across the scenery.  However, quite suddenly this time, you sat up in the stroller and peeped your head out of the side like a dog sticking its head from a car window.  You craned your neck at each little thing on the side of the road as it passed, then looked back at me with a shocked expression that seemed to say, "Whoa, where did all this neat new stuff come from?"

Here you are, sitting up in your stroller

Evidence of your positive development was especially keen today when the early intervention physical therapist came with a team to assess your developmental progress and examine whether you are delayed, as is so often the case with micro-preemies.  Based on the various skills you present, they give you a score and then rank you compared to other babies your age.  After making rigorous scientific observations, you were determined to be a 10 out of 10 on the cuteness scale.  Good work!  But aside from cuteness, they also determined that you were presenting as a 7 month old, even though you are only 6 months adjusted!  Even when compared to 10 month old babies, you are still considered within the normal range.  Today was a proud day.       

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Halloween Parties

Dear Ellie,

Halloween has been one of my favorite holidays since before I could remember.  Just in case you take a liking to it also, I thought I'd document your very first Halloween.  Granted, from your perspective, it couldn't have been much more than an irritating, confusing hodge podge that was interrupting your naps.

The fun began at Annie and Tony's 7th birthday party, and since their birthdays landed so close to the 31st of October, it was Halloween themed!  Aunt Holly planned and arranged the party at a pavilion, your mother helped with decorations, and I vowed to make a "snake cave."  I'm sure you've heard the stories by now about the Smith Garage Haunted House Adventures when I was a kid.  About when Grandpa and our Uncle Doug turned the garage into a virtual scare-the-pee-out-of-little-kids machine.  Giant snakes and the magic mirrors and the like.  The snakes especially were frightful, to me.  I couldn't have been older than perhaps five or six, but being trapped in a corner by a giant, hissing, snapping snake that was as round as my torso was a wonderfully traumatic experience.  Even though I knew the snake was just a giant sleeve that your grandfather made (because I saw him making it), it has still to this day left a fond scar in my memory.  So what does the Smith Garage Haunted House have to do with Annie and Tony's party?  Well, some day, I'd like to leave fond scars in your memory too, and I used Annie and Tony's party as an occasion to test out the whole snake thing for future Ellie Halloweens.  

Here is the Halloween Party Pavilion

Some of your mother's "monster poofs" and her skull Jack-o-Lantern.

And the snake cave.  The best I could do in a few hours...

Sadly, it was a rather blistery day so a lot of the decorations for the party blew away into the highway (nearly causing a few traffic accidents) before anyone even showed up to admire them.  The snake cave took a beating too, partly because I wasn't thinking very hard when I used push tacks instead of nails to put the darn thing together.  Oh well, duct tape to the rescue!

As the children started showing up, the snake jumped into action.  That is to say, I scattered candy in front of the cave to lure the children over and when they were inches from the wall, the snake THEN jumped into action.

The snake guards his hard earned candy (the snake himself, courtesy of Grandpa).

As one might expect from a bunch of young kids, they were at first fearful and uncertain of the beast.  As the snake popped out from holes in the cave, they shrieked or lurched away.  Some of the children courageously darted in closer to snatch at some of the candy.  Pretty soon, though, their attitude toward the snake closely mirrored broader human tendencies when a people are faced with a terrible beast.  At first, they fear it.  Then, it fascinates them.  Then they take up arms.  Then they kill it.  Then they dance about in triumph with some part of the defeated creature's carcass.  My poor snake was no exception.     

Phase 1: Fear and Uncertainty.

Phase 2: The Humans arm themselves, using the bones of the 
snake's former victims as clubs and candy as projectiles!

Phase 3: The Humans band together and do what 
they do best... violence!  A Great Battle Ensues!

Phase 4: The Beast is Slain!  The Victors Celebrate with clenched firsts!

So there you have it, a microcosm example of why many animals go extinct (and why your father's arm gets bruised so often).  I suppose there is a last phase to the whole thing, too.  Once the snake was slain, there was great regret at no longer having a creature to do battle with.  Fortunately, the party furnished many more activities to amuse them.  From there, we moved on to numerous games that your mother and Holly prepared, with little trinkets being awarded to the winners in order to motivate them.

With the limbo, Holly and I abruptly yanked the bar down on 
the bigger kids so that the younger ones would win.

Here we have the classic potato sack race.  First one to touch 
the snake, wins!  In a momentary lapse of adult judgement 
though, I started the kids off going downhill and, well...

You can see the result for yourself.  Its a good thing kids bounce back easily...

...though I'm not sure I can say the same thing for the adults.  Look closely in
the back and you can see Sajan wiping out right out of the gate.

I'd like to think you enjoyed yourself, in so far as you can enjoy apparently random noises and movements.  A few pictures would seem to suggest that you did.

Here you are with Grandma! 

 People who didn't understand that you were dressed like a Star Trek science and medical officer thought you were a boy.  Blue is a boy color, supposedly.  Who knew?  On the upside, when we dressed you up in the same outfit for Uncle Zack and Aunt Danielle's Halloween party, there was a good bit more context, and a good bit more nerds to get the reference.

Our half Vulcan, half human baby.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

First Winter

Dear Ellie,

My favorite time of year has finally arrived: that four month stretch where the sun lumbers along in the south, too beleaguered by 8 long months of trekking up the center of the sky.  The trees cast long shadows, making it seem as though every hour were in the evening.  As though all day were the end of the day, when our worries wind down and invite moments of reflection.  Cold fronts blow in, blowing away too the mosquitoes and heat and humidity.

We've made liberal use of the cool weather, though if the stroller proves too cold, I bundle you up inside of the Ergo, close to my chest, and take you on early morning walks just the same.  You peer out all the while, looking hard at each new thing before moving on to the next.  Sometimes you'll twist around and gaze back at me, your expression shifting from wonder to familiarity, before you turn once more to the strange surroundings of your first winter.  Oddly, with you here, it feels almost like its my first winter as well.  The same way that the cold seems to add a sheen of "different" to a landscape, you've done the same for all things in my life.    

Here you are, bundled up for a morning walk.

Of course, Winter in Florida is actually quite verdant compared to other temperate climates.  So much so that we actually have a winter harvest!  The first crop of green beans just arrived from your Grandma Smith's garden.

Mmm... fresh green beans!

When I was a kid, I never had issues eating my greens.  Why would I when there were so many fresh vegetables, ready to be eaten right off the plant?  The same would appear to be true for you!

      You may not have teeth yet, but you have already shown
an enthusiasm for green beans!...

 ...And lettuce!

I'm sure that as Winter progresses, I'll start to look fondly ahead to all the things I missed about summer.  There are, after all, trips to the beach and sloshing in the pool to look forward to!  Still, our first Winter together will be one we will relish. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins

Dear Ellie,

There is something dreadful and wonderful about ghost stories.  Even as someone who has never believed in super natural things of this nature, I'm still drawn to them.  I believe they tap into a fundamental, primal part of ourselves.  Something buried deep in our heads beneath folds and folds of rational gray matter.  Horror stories have a way of peeling away those folds, revealing those primal parts and opening our minds to a secret element of who we are.

These stories are ever more powerful when tethered to a place, like the Legend of Sleepy Hallow.  Ever since I read that American classic--- and ever since I knew I wanted to be a father--- I wanted to create a similar kind of mythology surrounding the place that we lived... and that's where the Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins comes in.

It's a story about mysterious red pumpkins that appear far off in the woods.  Pumpkins that inspire a sinister fear in those who behold them.  Pumpkins that come closer and closer as Halloween grows near.  By the time you've read these letters, I imagine you'll be older.  You'll have heard this story many times before, perhaps before every Halloween.  And maybe, even, you'll have seen these pumpkins yourself, shimmering far off in the forest on frigid, moonless nights...

And as a warning, in case this story somehow escaped your childhood (like, if your mother wouldn't let me read it to you!) then I suppose it should come with a warning... WARNING: This story is a little bit graphic in some areas.

So without further delay, here it is: The Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins.


Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

When the day of the Autumn Equinox comes, should you see a faint red glow off in the shadows of the Florida flatwoods, don’t listen to that curious voice in your head.  Turn around.  Walk away.  And as you walk, should you feel that you are being stalked… should you feel a heat at your neck, like a candle held near… should a light be cast behind you that warps your shadow on the leaves and pine needles before you… don’t twist your head to investigate.  I did once.  Just once.  And now, the crimson pumpkins will forever haunt my dreams.           

I don’t know why the crimson pumpkins began to appear when they did.  It was the first day of Autumn when I first saw one.  I was only 10 years old.  At the time, Foxwood was still undeveloped and the three lots across the street were nothing but a tangle of vines and pine trees and underbrush.  It’s there that I saw a flicker at twilight.  A tiny speck of red light, peeking through the maze of fallen limbs.  I watched it from my bedroom window that night, wondering what it could possibly be.  Your aunt Andrea and I dared one another to go out and see what it was, but neither of us could get to the end of the driveway before our courage failed us.  We watched and watched into the night, but it was only a matter of time before our curiosity was not enough to resist the tow of sleep.

The following evening, that strange light returned.  Andrea and I walked around to the other side of Meadowlark Circle to see if our neighbors there had put up some strange lantern.  There was no such thing in their yard or near their house, but from their front lawn, too, we could see the flicker again, deep in the forest.           

We wanted to investigate, but still, our courage could not overcome our fear.  Again that night, I watched the light flicker in the woods. 

It went on like that.  Each night, the light always returned, flickering in the darkness like a beating heart.

Whenever day came, I’d cross the ditch on the other side of the road and peer into the forest, yet every time, I only saw wilderness.  After a month of watching the light, an unsettling feeling came over me.  When I first saw it, it was only the size of Venus perhaps, which hung in the night sky.  But a month later?  It had grown larger.  With each passing day, it appeared to get larger and larger... or closer.

It was two weeks before Halloween when I at last saw the source of the light in greater detail.  It was a red candle, buried inside of a tall, peculiar pumpkin.  At first, I thought it was some kind of prank.  Some Halloween Jack-o-Lantern.  When daylight came, Andrea and I walked out into the forest to investigate.  We cut through the underbrush with yard clippers toward the place we had last seen the Jack-o-Lantern, but when we arrived, we found something unexpected.  The shattered remains of a pumpkin, its surface black and sticky with something smelling foul.  When we got to within a few feet, an explosion of flies erupted as though from a carcass.  We stumbled backward, then clamored away toward the safety of the road.

We thought perhaps that that was the end of the light.  Maybe some neighborhood kid had gone out to investigate earlier in the day and stomped the pumpkin to pieces.  Yet when night fell again, the light returned.  This time, it was only forty feet from our mailbox.  We could see it clearly now, and it was like no Jack-o-Lantern we had ever seen.  There was no toothy grin, no nose, no eyes carved out.  Instead, it appeared as though the pumpkin had been hacked clumsily by some large blade, like a person brutally murdered with a butcher knife.  We squinted at the red flame inside, but we could see no candle stalk.  No wax.  It appeared as though it dangled in space.  It cast fingers of light through the slits hacked from the pumpkin’s flesh.

It was at this point that our friends and neighbors began to wonder about the pumpkin, as well.  Everyone accused everyone else of having placed the pumpkin in the forest.  For having moved it closer, each night, toward our house.  Yet no one took credit, and no one had the courage to walk into the forest, at night, to retrieve it.

When Halloween descended, the pumpkin had at last come to the edge of the forest.  Trick or treaters didn’t walk down the northern end of Meadowlark Circle that year.  They took the long way, their parents citing the lack of street lights on the northern side, where the pumpkin lay.  We all knew the real reason.

I stayed up as long as I could that night, watching the pumpkin across the street but somewhere around eleven o’clock, I finally fell asleep.  When I awoke at midnight, I peered out the window to find that the pumpkin was no longer on the other side of the street by the woods.  It was at the edge of our yard.  I shut the blinds.  Threw myself beneath the sheets.  I was having a nightmare, for sure.  I’d had them before, hadn’t I?  At some point early in the morning, I peeked out of my blankets and saw a tiny sliver of red light sneaking in through the cracks in the blinds.  It moved along the ceiling of my room, as though crawling like a spider.

Was it possible?  Was the pumpkin inching ever closer outside my window? 

I don’t know why I rolled out of bed.  Or why I wormed along the floor and over to the window.  Or why I lifted a panel of the blinds.  Or why I looked out.  Whatever the reason, I regret it to this very day.  Outside the window, down below next to the mango tree, the crimson pumpkin lay.  It was leaning backward, as though gazing up at me.  That ghastly red glow spewed from a gash in its flesh, like blood oozing from the wound on a corpse.  And then the pumpkin turned.  A ray of red light lashed at my face.  Stabbed at my eyes.  And that’s when thoughts not of my own invaded my mind.  I lurched away from the window.  Put my back to the wall.  Then came the sounds.  At first, I thought they were whispers inside my head.  Moans and groans.  But in their faintness, they were too shrill to be either.  That’s when I realized they weren’t whispers, but shrieks and wails from a distance.  And they, too, were coming closer.

But then the red light peeking through the blinds suddenly vanished, replaced instead by the first rays of light from the rising sun.  It took me nearly an hour to walk downstairs, but when I did I opened the front door.  Looked toward the mango tree.  Next to the row of pineapples was a shattered pumpkin, covered by something black and sticky.  The following night, there was no pumpkin or red light that flickered in the night.

All through the year I accused your uncle Zack and Grandfather of conspiring to frighten me.  It was easy to deny that anything deeper or sinister was afoot now that the pumpkin had disappeared.  They denied it, of course, but said that they wished they had thought of it themselves.

As Autumn passed, then Winter, the pumpkin faded from my consciousness.  That is, until the coming of the next Autumn.  That’s when, again, the crimson pumpkin appeared across the street, deep in the forest.  To my horror, however, as the days passed, more pumpkins began to appear all through the neighborhood.  Far off in the cow pastures.  Atop the old shell-hill on Hawkview Circle.  In vacant lots.  One night, I even saw one floating along in the lake at the middle of Meadowlark Circle, the red glow of its flame dancing and licking along the placid waves. With each passing day, more crimson pumpkins appeared.  Each day, they came closer to the houses of our neighbors. But there was one house that no pumpkin crept toward.  Ours.  But something else was on the march, for me.  Something far more fearful that came closer and closer with each setting of the sun.

Each night, before I drifted off to sleep... there was the faint sound of wailing and shrieking in the distance, which only I could hear.  And each night, the terrible sounds came closer and closer.  The nearer we came to Halloween, the more vivid--- the sharper--- those sounds became.  With it, came a dull thudding.  A hacking, like a butcher carving at a leg of beef.  There were women weeping.  Horses shrieking and cattle bellowing in twisted death agony.  And visions, too, that struck me at that bleary moment between wakefulness and sleep.  They were visions washed in red light, and amid that red light I saw silhouettes.  Withered bodies of women and children standing erect, heads hanging limply on their necks, mouths gaping, eyes emptied of life, but ambling along on their feet nonetheless.  I saw pumpkins shattered everywhere, and amid them all, a body dangling from a rope on a tree.

A month before Halloween, these nightmares began to invade the waking world.  I awoke one morning to find shattered pumpkins covering the road.  Our whole family came out to look, and that's when your grandmother noticed something peculiar.

"These are Seminole pumpkins," she said, looking closer.  "Just like the ones we grow in the yard."

When we went to check our pumpkin patch, none of the pumpkins were missing, yet we were the only ones in the neighborhood who grew them.  Did this have something to do with the crimson pumpkin coming to our house first, last year?  As I stood amidst the pumpkin patch, I finally began to understand.

In case your Grandmother never told you, Seminole pumpkins are a type of native Floridian pumpkin that were grown and cultured by the Seminole Indians that once lived here.  That is, before most of the Seminole Indians were rounded up and forced to march west on the Trail of Tears.

That day at school, I went to the library and read everything I could about the Seminole Indians.  I read about the Seminole Wars.  How, before the Civil War, the Seminoles resisted attempts by the U.S. Government to relocate them west.  How they refused to abandon the swamps and flatwoods of Southern Florida.  And then I read about how General William Harney launched a campaign to purge them from the land.  At the attack on Tequesta Landing, he swept into their village with 300 men.  The Seminoles vanished into the swamps before they could be captured, but to insure that they couldn't survive any longer on the land, the Harney's soldiers slaughtered all of the villager's horses and livestock, burned their fruit trees, and smashed every last one of their Seminole pumpkins, for which the Indians relied very heavily for food.  Most of the Indians gave up after that and were sent away on the Trail of Tears.  Most of them would die on the journey.  Others fled to the Everglades and slowly starved.  Only one Seminole remained to confront General Willian Harney.  It was the son of Chief Osceola, and he neither fought nor surrendered.  Instead, he whispered a curse on the conquers and their descendants.  He told Harney and his men that the spirits of his people would return to the place from which they were banished, and when they did, they would haunt those who had usurped the land.  Young Osceola was hanged on the spot, surrounded by dying horses and livestock, their blood coating the shattered pumpkins around them.

It's unknown exactly where the attack on Tequesta Landing was, but it was said to be somewhere here in Martin County.  Perhaps, even, here in this very neighborhood.

For the next week, I stayed up late racking my brain.  Trying to find an answer as what to do.  But time was running out.  

A few days before Halloween, early in the morning before the sun came up, I was looking out across the neighborhood from my bedroom window at all of the crimson pumpkins that now populated the forest.  That's when I saw something appear at the end of our driveway.  Something large.  Four legged.  It was a peculiar, shaggy horse with short legs.  Was it one of the Seminole's horses?  A marsh tackey?  It stood by the road, head slumped and body quivering.  That's when I saw the gaping wounds by its ribs.  Entire chunks hacked away from its side, as though inflicted by bayonets.  And then there was the blood.  It spewed forth from the creature, pooling on the pavement before snaking off down the road like a river.  So much blood, that it ran for yards and yards.  Some of it slushed into the swales, turning the water red.  Some of it formed lakes in potholes.  As I came closer, the creature raised its head.  It's eyes were wide.  Swollen and wild in anguish.  It opened its mouth to wail and whinny, but nothing came out.  I ran up the driveway, into the house, and slammed the door behind me.  I told your grandmother and grandfather about what happened, but as soon as the three of us came out to investigate, the horse was already gone.  Only the river of blood remained.  By late morning, the blood had clotted, turning black and sticky and foul, to which a swarm of flies came to feast.

That night, as I drifted away to sleep, I saw the horse again, in a flash.  It's mouth open, again.  Eyes bulging, again.  Nostrils flaring, again.  But this time, I heard it shriek.  It shrieked and shrieked all through my dreams until the light of the morning came and ended its misery.

I had to do something.  I had to right the wrongs of our past.  Just before dawn, I gathered up as many Seminole pumpkins as I could carry, packing them in my backpack and into my arms.  Then I set off across the street and into the woods.  There were many crimson pumpkins now, like a legion, slowly marching from the forest toward all the other houses.  As I passed them, I turned my head away.  Refused to look amid the flames.  Red light began to gather to my left.  To my right.  Behind me. Then the light was joined by sounds.  Wails of despair.  The weeping of children.  The further I went into the forest, the more intense the light became and the greater the volume of the sounds.  Still, I refused to look anywhere but forward.  I'd peered into the light once before and nearly lost my mind.  What would happen if I did again?  I pushed on ever faster in a panic, and it seemed the forest itself turned against me.  Seemed as though it wanted my blood.  The serrated stalks of the palmettos slashed at my bare legs and arms like tiny saws.  Ticks lept from the underbrush and gorged on my neck, my wrists, my ankles, my eyelids.  The red light around me grew so great, so intense, I could not tell what was sweat on my body and what was blood.  I could not tell the cries of the children from my own.

At last, I came to the center of the forest.  The place where I had seen the very first crimson pumpkin appear.  An ancient, withered slash pine teetered before me.  Amid the crimson hues, a silhouette hung from its largest limb.  It was dressed in threadbare hides, but not in flesh.  The crimson light passed through its ribs and bathed the tree behind it.  The silhouette twitched, from the wind or not,  I could not tell.  That's when I saw shadows, in vague human form, surrounding the tree.  Shadows that consumed the crimson light around me like a leech devours blood.  Each of the shadows turned, slowly, to witness me.  And then they came closer.  They moved like black clouds, blown by the wind.  I would have turned and fled at the sight, were there not a worse fate all around me.

My arms began to quake so violently that the Seminole pumpkins tumbled from my arms.  I unzipped my back pack, and one by one, I rolled them toward the shadows like bowling balls.  The shadows stopped.  Measured my deeds.  Judged them, perhaps.  I wanted to speak--- to say that I was sorry for what was done to them--- but from my mouth came only gasps, and my eyes, tears of terror.  When all of the pumpkins were delivered, I fell to the ground and buried my head in my knees.  Clenched my eyes shut.  Covered my ears.  And waited.

When I opened my eyes moments later, there was no light but the light of the moon, dripping in through the canopy.  No sound but the whistle of the wind through the pine needles, which clacked together like tiny green wind chimes.  The shadows were gone.  The silhouette was gone.  The crimson pumpkins were gone... but so, too, were the ones I'd delivered.  I stood up and slowly walked away, never turning my back to the tree until I had come to the road.

The following night, no more crimson pumpkins appeared in the woods.  I thought, perhaps, that I'd finally made amends.  That I'd proven we were not like those who came before us.  But when the Autumn Equinox came the following year, I discovered that I was somehow wrong.  On some nights, when all was still and quiet, I could hear the voices from afar.  On some nights, when the air was cold and frigid, I could see the shimmer of a crimson light far off in the distance.  Were the spirits still unsatisfied?  Conflicted?  Would they one day continue their march against those who now inhabit their lands?

I wish I knew the answer.  And so before every Halloween, I leave nothing to chance.  I confront my fears and set off again on the very same journey I had before.

 This, however, is not a journey I can make forever.  One day I will be too old.  Too tired.  Or... too fearful.  When that time comes, Ellie, it will be your turn.  I'll fill your arms with Seminole pumpkins.  Pack your backpack.  Then, you'll go forth toward the heart of the forest and, once there, confront the Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins yourself.  Stay mindful of your task, though.  Don't ever look behind you.  And should you ever find yourself face to face with a crimson pumpkin, don't ever gaze into its light... for if you do, the crimson pumpkin will also gaze into you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It's 65 Degrees... Get Out Your Winter Clothes!

Dear Ellie,

As you know, we Floridians can never let cold weather go to waste.  If we're lucky, we'll get a few days of winter reprieve and then end up right back with sweltering temperatures and oppressive humidity.  Lucky for us, we just happened to get a bit of that reprieve this past week!  The best part?  We finally got to take you for long walks in the stroller!

With your retinopathy still present, though, your eyes are quite sensitive to direct sunlight, so trips in the stroller thus far have taken the form of old school video games.  To evade the sunlight, we bounced around through the shadows of trees, dodging the sunbeams that pierced the limbs and pine needles.  Wherever there were long stretches of exposed road, we'd kick it into high gear and sprint for the shade or turn the stroller around entirely and walk in reverse.

Our walk this morning, however, was a bit more relaxed.  The day was still young when we set out.  The sun still slept behind the horizon.  You peered around from your seat in the stroller at the sounds of the early birds as they chirped away the stillness of night.  Normally, you would have grunted or growled on occasion, but this time, you didn't make a single sound for the entire two mile walk.  I couldn't help but to wonder what was bumping around in that 5 month old brain of yours.  I've always been put at ease by the places that are between places--- Dawn and Dusk; inter-tidal zones and foothills; the summer and winter solstices--- and I wondered whether somehow you felt the same way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Plate of Agar

Dear Ellie,

Your adjusted age is now 5 months, which means its time for another round-off of size comparison pictures!

From the looks of it, we'll have to stretch Oliver the Eel out a bit in order for you to fit inside!  Even though you've never exceeded the 10th percentile in length and your head is still up around 80th, you look conspicuously different than just 3 months ago.  We even got to compare you to some other preemies (who are still before their due dates!)  We took a visit back to St. Mary's hospital because we wanted to do a swallow study, which you passed with flying colors.  While there, we took you by the NICU.  It was the first time I'd been back to the NICU since we took you home.  

Going into it, I was a bit cavalier about the whole thing, I think.  I thought I'd cruise in with you and your mother, chat it up with the nurses, and look around fondly.  But that wasn't how I felt at all, once we got there.  I wasn't prepared for how taken aback I'd be at seeing the NICU 2 preemies.  Even though they were around 4 times bigger than you when you were born, they stilled looked miniscule compared to how you look now.  But the sights I think struck me in a rather shallow way.  Hearing the sounds--- the bleeps and blips and dainty cries of tiny babies--- stirred so many more emotions.

And again, there was another sense that struck even deeper.  The sounds were second to the smells.  It's said that smell is linked to the limbic cortex of our brains: the seat of our primal emotions, far removed from all of that thinking matter that is stacked on top of it.  Maybe that's why the smells, most keenly, brought back all of the emotions we felt during your time there.  The pervasive scent of hand sanitizer, so thick in the air that it soaks into your clothes.  The soapy smell of the washing station.  The smell... of something that shouldn't be born yet.      

Weird, huh?  I guess I never mentioned this before, but the smell that really unsettled me the most was the smell of you, a fetus.  It was an omnipresent smell early on while I stood next to you.  Faint, but unmistakable.  I remember on the very first day after you were born, you were completely enveloped in your isolette by a warm blanket of humidity that regulated your body temperature and protected your skin.  Because you baked in that isolette 24/7 for quite some time, the atmosphere inside became saturated with the smell of... you.  And you didn't smell like a baby.  You smelled like... unflavored gelatin or a plate of agar.  A sort of... fleshy, living smell.  Like what a washed, sterile, organ must smell like were it somehow kept alive on its own.  I remember pondering that smell those first few days.  How the smell of a baby was so pleasant but the smell of a fetus was so ambiguous.  I imagine our human senses never adapted to make the smell of a living fetus pleasant because we humans were never supposed to smell one to begin with.  And so when we came back to the NICU last week, I caught a whiff of that smell.  And all of those early days after your birth came spilling back into my brain.  

If you've read all of my letters to you this far, maybe it seems tedious by this point that I can't stop thinking about what happened to you this past year.  Maybe you think I should just forget it and move on.  But I want you to understand a very important thing that infuses the lives of you, your mother, and myself.  As we watch you slowly grow into a human being--- as smiles turn to laughs and swats turn to grasps--- its impossible to ignore the fact that you were almost not here at all.  

To a lot of people, I imagine parenthood might have a certain inevitability to it.  Something bland and promised to them.  But to me, after all that you've been through, having you here with me feels like I've been given some spectacular prize or won some kind of unlikely lottery.  And why shouldn't I want to feel this way, always?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Clockmaker's Illustration

Dear Ellie,

Creative pursuits have always come easily to me.  Writing, acting, musicianship... sadly though, I've always been an exceedingly mediocre artist.  For this reason, I've always envied artists.  I wish I could write you stories and then illustrate them myself, but given that my artistic skill hasn't improved since my days in Kindergarten (I gave up when my very earnest attempts to color between the lines met with continual failure) I've settled on the next best thing.

Over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of seeing your stories come to life, though not by my own hand.  As I mentioned previously, I looked very carefully for an illustrator who's style I thought captured your stories best, and Tze immediately felt like a natural fit.  He was very accommodating and over the course of around 100 e-mail exchanges we discussed which scenes should be illustrated and how.  The process was quite a bit more involved than I thought, but quite enjoyable.  Tze insisted on doing the best that he could.  He wanted the illustrations to match what I'd imagined, and I'm so incredibly happy with the final results.  Each illustration involved numerous iterations, with some illustrations involving as many as a dozen different sketches and rough drafts.  Some stories took quite some time to get right, so much so that I felt bad about requesting changes.  The Girl in the Sphere was surprisingly troublesome, but with other stories, like Ludwig von Whiskers Paws, I could think of very few ways to improve them.         

Of all your stories, I was looking forward to seeing the final product of The Clockmaker's Daughter most.  I've read the story so many times to you that I can recite it by heart.  From the first sketch to the final illustration, Tze always seemed to render the scene better than my own imagination could.  I can't wait to frame it and put it up on the wall next to your crib:

The Clockmaker works tirelessly through the night...

I plan on commissioning an illustration for each of your stories, though I probably shouldn't be too prolific with my writing.  I might write myself straight into the poor house!  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Barbarians at the Gate

Here you are, being adorable in a 
picture I should have cropped better...

Here you are, critically examining your grandmother

You are starting to rock the whole sitting up thing, 
though still refusing to admit that arms should have 
anything to do with it.

Dear Ellie,

Don't let those smiley pictures up there fool you.  There is trouble afoot.  As it turns out, all of your preemie problems aren't quite over with.  All of the things that wracked you most in the NICU and threatened your life have disappeared, but all of the things you utterly conquered in the NICU have returned to the gates, and now they are bellowing like barbarians.  Before your due date, you had an iron clad gut and an appetite that roared like a lion.  Unfortunately, over the past 3 months that appetite has become more like kitten's whimper.  Every two weeks or so, you get impatient with the way that we feed you and demand that we try some other, more complicated method to feed you... otherwise you refuse to eat.  First, you wanted to be carried in our arms.  Then you wanted to be carried in the Ergo.  Then you wanted to be fed in the Ergo while being walked up and down the stairs.  Last week, even that failed, and now, to get you to eat, your mother and I have to team up.  One of us walks you around in the Ergo and the other dances and sings 1990's cartoon theme songs.  You seem partial to Animaniacs.  I'm getting the impression that this is all some kind of ruse.  Like, you're a little infantile Queen, making outlandish decrees to your subjects for your own entertainment: "Today shalt be standith on thine head, day!  Now standith on thine heads or I shalt take thine heads!"  Given the current rate of escalation, I'm afraid that two weeks from now, the only way to feed you will be while riding a unicycle or surfing.  I'm not very good at either.  As your mother aptly put it, you don't need a parent right now.  You need a clown.  

Sadly, your mother and I can't always be here at the same time to entertain you while you eat so that means... you're going hungry.  Your mother keeps a spreadsheet on the subject and it appears you've even gone hungry enough to lose weight this previous month.  Scary.  On the upside, you stashed enough acorns in your cheeks, legs, and tummy to last a good chunk of the Winter.  But if these finicky habits continue for too much longer, we could be in a bad situation...    

So we're throwing every dart we've got and hope to hit a bulls-eye.  Swallow studies, feeding specialists, feeding clinics, you name it.  We don't want to wait any longer to get to the bottom of this.  We took a trip to the pediatrician recently and it was somewhat of a wake up call for me.  While there, you cried when the doctor picked you up with her cold hands.  When your shrieking started getting worse, the doctor reached for the bottle I'd prepared, thinking it would comfort you like it would most babies.  Once the nipple hit your lips, you had an utterly nauseated expression on your face and promptly threw up on everything.  This is really when I realized the extent of your feeding issues.  Eating isn't supposed to be a dreadful, anxious activity for a baby, yet it so often is for you.  Whenever I feed you, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells.  It's supposed to be the opposite.  Sadly, we still don't know what the underlying cause is.  We thought at first that it was reflux, but the gastrointestinal specialist officially ruled that out.

If worse comes to worst, we could always snake another tube down into your stomach like back in the NICU.  I've been criticized by parents of full-term babies for not finding that prospect absolutely horrifying.  I guess you get used to these things.

So anyway, your mother and I are see-sawing between intense worry and optimism.  Optimism, because despite the fact that you SHOULD be hungry (and irritable as a result), you are still a smiling, laughing, active baby that is hitting all of her important milestones.

You discovered that you had feet not too long ago.  That was a big one.  You've been rolling over on a whim when you want a better look at stuff.  And of course, you've gotten much, much better at sitting!  Other milestones include the throat-punching-daddy milestone and the grabbing-daddy's-glasses milestone and the stabbing-daddy's-newly-exposed-eye milestone.  I'm still waiting for the recoil-in-pain-at-having-grabbed-daddy's-stubble milestone, but patience in all things I suppose...